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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2002

Anchoring Our Evolving Libraries

Kent Weaver
Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century Michael Gorman. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000; 188 pp; paper $28 US.
Michael Gorman's book begins by positing a war - a war between the traditional library and the "virtual" library, a war fueled by massive and relatively recent technological change. He asks whether libraries will be destroyed or strengthened by technological change. "Is the Virtual Library at war with the traditional library or is it possible that what we are experiencing is not a revolution and certainly not a war?" He then provides an answer, stating that "evolution, enhancement, growth and progress" are taking place. What will help ensure that evolution prevails is a set of values or fundamental anchors that provide perspective and will inform our actions and decisions.

It is not just the technological changes Gorman cites that merit a discussion of values. Globalization is affecting the academic sector. The potential impact of the General Agreement on Trade in Services on library services is far from clear. A new century, let alone a new millennium, is a traditional time to reflect and to take stock. Although the book was published before the tragic events of Sept. 11 last year, the aftermath of that event is relevant to several of the enumerated values.

Gorman is dean of library services at the California State University at Fresno. He is the author of many articles and several books, including The Concise AACR2, 1998 Revision, High Tech, High Touch: Libraries at the Crossroads and Our Singular Strengths: Meditations for Librarians. It should be noted that Our Enduring Values addresses librarianship in general and not academic librarianship in particular.

Gorman begins with the history and philosophy of library values. Moving from the more practical/ pragmatic aspects of librarianship, he discusses the impact that four people had in developing his views on the philosophy and theory of librarianship. The names are familiar: S.S. Ranganathan, Jesse Shera, Samuel Rothstein and Lee Finks.

His next two chapters review the value of libraries and library as place. In the chapter about the values of libraries, Gorman returns to the "virtual" library (a cyber-entity with electronic products and services only) and presents a bleak picture of its landscape. This includes the destruction of the traditional library (or its transformation into a homeless shelter), the pulping of print material, and the widespread unemployment of librarians.

He concludes, mercifully, that this alternative will not happen and the evolutionary library will prevail. There may, however, be a little too much straw in this construct. Even in the evolutionary library context, some consequences of the virtual cannot be easily knocked over. These concerns include a reader's attention span and the potential for plagiarism.

The eight values he believes are fundamental to librarianship in the 21st century are each given a chapter in the book:

  • Stewardship - preserving the human record to ensure future generations know what we know; and caring for and nurturing of education for librarianship so that we pass on our best professional values and practices.
  • Service - ensuring our policies and procedures are animated by the ethic of service to individuals and communities, society and posterity; and evaluating our policies and procedures using service as a criterion.
  • Intellectual freedom - maintaining a commitment to the idea that all people in a free society should be able to read and see whatever they wish to read and see; and defending the intellectual freedom of all members of our communities.
  • Rationalism - applying rationalism and the scientific method to all library procedures and programs.
  • Literacy and learning - encouraging lifelong sustained reading; and making the library a focus of literacy teaching.
  • Equity of access to recorded knowledge and information - ensuring library resources and programs are accessible to all.
  • Privacy - ensuring the confidentiality of records of library use; and overcoming technological invasions of library use.
  • Democracy - playing our part in maintaining the values of a democratic society; participating in the educational process to ensure the educated citizenry that is vital to democracy; and employing democracy in library management.

This is an ambitious undertaking, especially in less than 200 pages. The book is well written, wide-ranging and provocative. For example, the chapter on stewardship includes a brief discussion of library education and the contention that it is "a disaster that is in danger of becoming a catastrophe." His comments about the harmful dynamic between library science and information science are intriguing but insufficiently developed to be persuasive.

Two values in particular deserve a brief comment. Gorman cites the Canadian Library Association's intellectual freedom statement as "one of the best statements" to ensure that citizens in a free society are able to read and see whatever they wish. He does not discuss academic freedom and it is important to note that the two are not synonymous. Given the number of recent cases in Canada that infringe upon or deny academic freedom, the rights of faculty members and librarians to academic freedom in teaching, research, publishing, in collection development and in freedom from institutional censorship demand our attention.

New service initiatives that are, or could be, predicated on ongoing profiles of both staff and patrons, such as virtual reference and "mylibrary," demand renewed attention to the privacy issues. In the aftermath of Sept. 11 there were seizures of library computers in the United States and the passage of antiterrorism acts, both in Canada and the U.S. These actions underline the fragility of civil freedoms.

Gorman's stated purpose for his book is "to illuminate and re-create the underpinnings of our profession to, at least, provide a framework for discussion and, at best, be a broad plan with which we may all proceed." On the first point, this publication is a success. One could (and should) join in the debate and argue the relative merits of the eight values. One could ask whether other values should have been included - professional neutrality, for example. It might be argued that the chosen values display a Western bias and that librarians from elsewhere around the world would not necessarily agree with all of them. Might there be significant differences in how they would be ranked and, more importantly, implemented?

As for offering a broad plan, the book is less successful. Gorman calls upon us to keep faith, but it is not always clear how this renewed appreciation will be effected. Some of the suggestions seem to be in the more-of-the-same category. With respect to stewardship, for example, he suggests we preserve everything we can that is "significant" and do good work and earn the trust and respect of the communities we serve. Regarding literacy, he writes that we should not regress, and emphasizes that the sustained reading of texts is important to all of us. In the final analysis librarians will continue to perform and supervise core functions - select, acquire, organize, provide access, preserve and conserve, assist library users, instruct library users, administer and manage the library infrastructure. And Gorman is right in this regard - the virtual academic library and the traditional academic library will be one and the same, and the spectral reference librarian will also be the print/electronic collection development librarian (or perhaps the systems librarian). And the discussion of those values articulated by Gorman, whether they are in print or PDF, will continue to inform all of our professional work.

Kent Weaver is Manager, Systems Operations, at the U of T Library and a member of CAUT's Librarians Committee.